When Erwin Germain was ready to leave the busy streets of Paris six years ago, he decided to move to Colorado, because he'd loved exploring the French Alps in his youth. “I had an opportunity to try new mountains in the U.S., so I picked Colorado,” says Germain.
But as he began to explore the Rockies, heading to ski areas and hiking destinations from his new home base of Denver (now a state employee, he's since relocated to Summit County, near Copper Mountain), he noticed a definite gap. In Europe, he'd often used a popular service called BlaBlaCar, which helps people carpool to various destinations. As both a passenger and a driver, Germain enjoyed the arrangement, splitting the cost of travel and knowing he was playing a role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by sharing rides.
Given Colorado’s green orientation, he decided to develop an app that would offer the same options in this state, helping drivers and passengers pair up. He and co-founder Justin Kurtz have been working on the app, called TreadShare, for three years; it's finally set to become operational.
Why did it take so long? The founders hit an unexpected roadblock when they first tried to launch in 2019: The Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies notified them that TreadShare would need to pay the fees associated with commercial enterprises like Uber and Lyft, in which drivers make money by giving people rides. According to Germain, it would have cost over $110,000 to bring the company into compliance — and that was just too much for a startup without a commercial model.
TreadShare drivers won't make money; they'll simply offer up extra seats in their cars and split the cost of gas with strangers rather than friends. While TreadShare itself will take a commission, Germain says that the founders are trying to make that percentage as small as possible, just enough to cover operational expenses.
Looking for help with Colorado's compliance requirement led Germain to the I-70 Coalition, which notified state representative Julie McCluskie about the predicament faced by TreadShare and two other Colorado carpooling apps, Gondola and Caravan.
Having learned of the regulations, Caravan founder Lizzie Templeton had already turned her project into a nonprofit, creating an app that doesn't involve monetary transactions. Instead, Caravan functions as a social site where users post their desired destinations and link to their social media, so that they can connect with others going to the same place; they're free to make financial arrangements offline. While the app has been functional since 2020, Caravan waited until 2021 to heavily promote the service because of both the pandemic and the regulatory snafu.
Gondola came up with a similar setup, but while its website says the company plans to open soon, the site doesn't appear to have been updated in almost a year, when it posted this: "We're sorry we didn't launch this season due to legal blockers from the CO PUC. A new bill allowing Gondola to operate is moving through the Colorado House & Senate, and we plan to launch for the 20/2021 season."
Templeton was originally inspired to set up her carpooling app during long drives to ski resorts on Interstate 70. McCluskie, who lives in Summit County and often travels along the I-70 corridor, was excited to consider a possible solution to alleviating congestion there.
One Friday night when she was heading home from Denver, she recalls, a snowstorm slowed traffic to a standstill. Also trying to drive home was fellow representative Perry Will. McCluskie and Will ended up talking the entire night as the traffic slowly cleared before they were able to make it home, and the two emerged with a renewed sense of urgency to do something about congestion along the corridor.
“Given that it is such a critical transportation access for the entire state, I am very familiar with all the congestion we are dealing with because of traffic and our amazing ski resorts and outdoor recreation opportunities,” McCluskie says.
Once she heard about the challenges facing carpooling services, McCluskie jumped at the chance to work on a bipartisan solution, suggesting new regulations for carpooling companies that would separate them from commercial operations like Uber and Lyft. McCluskie and Will became co-prime sponsors of a bill that was initially introduced in early 2020 but stalled until this year because of the pandemic. Under the proposal that was finally signed into law in April, drivers are limited to one carpooling trip a day, as an add-on to already planned adventures.
McCluskie says that state legislators worked closely with Uber and Lyft to ensure that the goal of carpooling companies was truly different. The result: Carpooling outfits are required to register with CDOT but communicate with users that CDOT doesn’t regulate their services — which means the state does not screen vehicles or check driver history, as it does with Uber and Lyft. Additionally, the total amount that carpooling drivers collect from passengers on each trip can’t exceed the IRS reimbursement rate, because the money represents cost of travel, not profit.
“The final goal is really to decrease traffic and pollution here in Colorado, so we want to connect drivers and passengers heading in the same direction,” Germain says. “That's the difference with Uber and Lyft. We are using cars that are already on the road.”
Now that the legislation has passed, Templeton says that Caravan plans to offer suggested rates to drivers; previously, it had steered clear of that to avoid falling under the commercial-enterprise umbrella.
“The two big drivers for us passing this legislation, and the two big benefits, are reducing traffic and congestion on the I-70 corridor and the environmental impacts of reducing greenhouse gases when we get more vehicles off the road,” McCluskie explains.
While it's difficult to determine the exact environmental impact of the legislation before knowing how many people will use the carpooling apps, Germain points out that if even a few thousand trips made each weekend during ski season are condensed, emissions will be lessened. Caravan already boasted over 100 users before ski season started, and Templeton says that the user base has grown in recent weeks.
And there are benefits beyond helping the environment. When the BlaBlaCar service took off in Europe, Germain notes, users also appreciated saving money and meeting like-minded people. On its Instagram, TreadShare emphasizes all those advantages to help persuade people to adopt carpooling.
And TreadShare users will also have a chance to win a 2022-23 season pass at Arapahoe Basin. According to Sha Miklas, senior manager of sustainability and guest services, sustainability is key to the ski area; when A-Basin saw a chance to encourage people to get to the mountain in a more sustainable way, it signed up with the app.
“We have the power to save the powder” is one of A-Basin’s sustainability slogans. Along with offering the chance to win a season pass, the company plans to highlight TreadShare and other carpooling services as part of its sustainable Sunday series on social media. Anyone frustrated with crowded parking conditions at the ski area can also help by carpooling, Miklas notes.
While TreadShare lists destinations across Colorado, it's mainly focused on ski areas and travel along I-70. Caravan only lists ski resorts as destinations, but Templeton says the company is exploring adding hikes and other popular destinations, such as Red Rocks, during summer months.
“I continue to marvel at the innovations that come out of the marketplace that solve all sorts of problems,” McCluskie says. Five years from now, she adds, people may look back on Colorado’s adoption of carpooling apps like TreadShare and Caravan as game-changers in terms of congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.
TreadShare is slated to get in the game on Monday, November 29. Find out more here.